Less than half of Americans trust elected officials to act in the public’s interest.
When voters want something done on an issue and their elected officials fail to act, they may turn to citizen initiatives to pursue their goals instead. The citizen initiative process varies by state, but in general, citizens collect signatures to have an issue put directly on the ballot for the voters to voice their preferences. Nearly half the states, 24 of them, allow citizen initiatives.
These measures, also called “ballot initiatives,” often focus on the controversial issues of the day. Citizen initiatives on same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization have been on many state ballots through the years. Abortion rights have repeatedly been on the ballot since 2022, after the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional protection for abortion, and more voters can expect to vote on the issue in 2024.
I am an American politics scholar who studies the connection between representation and public policy. In American democracy, the people expect to have a voice, whether that comes through electing representatives or directly voting on issues.
Yet it is becoming increasingly common for lawmakers across the country to not only ignore the will of the people, but also actively work against it. From 2010 to 2015, about 21% of citizen initiatives were altered by lawmakers after they passed. From 2016 to 2018, lawmakers altered nearly 36% of passed citizen initiatives.
Invalidate, weaken, repeal
Here’s what some of those cases look like, from successful to unsuccessful efforts to alter the will of the people:
• In November 2023, Ohio voters passed an amendment to their state’s constitution protecting the right to abortion. Within a week, a group of Ohio Republican lawmakers declared the amendment to be invalid and introduced legislation that would strip state courts from having authority to rule on the issue of abortion. Ohio House Speaker, Republican Jason Stephens, rejected the proposed legislation.
• In 2016, voters in South Dakota supported an initiative to revise campaign finance and lobbying laws and create an ethics commission. Governor Dennis Daugaard signed a law repealing the initiative in February 2017. Another citizen initiative to create an ethics commission was on the ballot in 2018, but did not pass.
Revise and amend
Often lawmakers rewrite laws passed through initiative. Some revisions change key components of the initiatives, while others amend technical details.
• Ohioans voted in favor of legalizing marijuana in November 2023. In that initiative, part of the tax revenue from marijuana sales would go to a financial assistance program for those who show “social and economic disadvantage.” The Ohio Senate passed a bill the following month that would instead use the tax revenue to fund jails and law enforcement.
• Massachusetts voters passed recreational marijuana legalization in 2016. In 2017, the Legislature passed a bill to increase the excise tax on marijuana from the 3.75% set in the citizens’ initiative to 10.75%.
• In 2018, Utah voters made adults with income up to 138% of the federal poverty level eligible for Medicaid – a federal-state health insurance program for low-income individuals and those with disabilities. The state Legislature applied to the federal government for waivers to lower the income limit to 100% of the federal poverty level, which curtailed the expansion voters approved.
• Arizona voters approved a tax increase on the wealthy to fund the state’s schools in 2020. In 2021, the Legislature responded by exempting business earnings from the tax. There was an attempt by citizen initiative later that year to repeal the legislature’s law exempting business earnings, but it did not gather enough signatures from citizens to make it to the ballot.
In some cases, it is not the legislature that opposes the will of the voters, but the governor. In recent years, several Republican governors have refused to implement Medicaid expansions passed by voter initiatives.
• Maine’s former governor, Paul LePage, said he would go to jail before he would implement Medicaid expansion after it passed by voter initiative in 2017. Medicaid was not expanded until Democrat Janet Mills took office in 2019.
• Missouri Governor Mike Parson said he would not move forward with the 2020 voter-passed Medicaid expansion because it would not pay for itself. In 2021, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled the initiative valid and Medicaid expansion moved forward.
Why they do it
Lawmakers who rewrite or overturn ballot initiatives sometimes argue that voters do not understand what they are supporting. Lawmakers, unlike citizens, have to balance state budgets every year, and they often raise questions about how to pay for the policies or programs passed by initiative.
Lawmakers also argue that outside groups play an outsized role in passing ballot initiatives. While political science research provides some support for this claim, outside groups also have influence in the regular legislative process. And they often work to defeat initiatives as well.
Citizen initiatives became popular during the Progressive Era of the early 20th century as a way to give power back to citizens. Then, as now, citizens felt political power was too concentrated in the hands of the wealthy. Initiatives were one way for everyday people to get more involved in their government.
That only half of states permit citizen initiatives suggests that political elites are not always supportive of a process that limits their own power. Historically, though, legislators have respected the results. Some lawmakers, including Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, state they will continue to “accept” the will of the people. To do otherwise undermines democracy.